Humans look for patterns in everything: we seek the reassurance of predictability in a world which is chaotic and random. It helps to keep us sane rather than face a future in which a chance accident may rob us of all that is dear to us. At least that’s what I think. You, of course, may feel that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan. That’s the debate at the heart of J. W. Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority.
Thomas Post is a philosopher, an academic dubbed ‘the coincidence authority’ because he sets about debunking the phenomenon using mathematical reasoning. One day he tumbles into a heap of people at the bottom of an escalator. He and Azalea suffer minor injuries, exchanging a few words before going their separate ways. Weeks later, Azalea walks into Thomas’s office. Having led a life beset by coincidence she wants to consult the expert. When they recognise each other from the escalator debacle, she sees it as coincidence – he sees it as a random event. Ironmonger explores the ways in which we make sense of what happens to us through the relationship between these two. Azalea’s life is one of extraordinary synchronicity and because of this she has come to believe that she may die on 21st June 2012 – her great-grandfather, her grandfather, her mother and her stepmother have all died on Midsummer’s Day convincing her that she will meet the same fate. As Thomas and she fall slowly, almost reluctantly, in love, he tries to rationalise her belief. The novel criss-crosses the decades following Azalea’s life from her apparent abandonment at a fair in 1982 to Uganda where the Lord’s Resistance Army run rampant, counting her missionary stepmother amongst its victims in 1992, and where she meets one of the two blind men who claim to be her father, to her relationship with Thomas in 2012.
It’s a sweet love story made intriguing by Azalea’s extraordinary string of coincidences, each weighed up and diffused by her Tim Harford of a boyfriend who loves her enough to still have a sneaking worry about her looming deadline. The philosophical dichotomy that Thomas and Azalea personify is clearly one that fascinates Ironmonger although at times the structure he’s chosen to explore it becomes a little strained: there’s a passage when Thomas explains determinism to Azalea which has a distinctly ‘here’s the science’ feel to it. That said, it’s a thought-provoking as well as entertaining novel. And who knows, perhaps it was meant to be that the signalling failure on the London line was so bad that I gave up trying to get to Oxford and came home to write this post instead.